Heap big thanks to Ihsan Amanatullah and the National Film Preservation Foundation for Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, a typically smashing box-set trove of films, fragments and ephemera. These collections are among my very favourite things.
One item of particular interest is Gregory La Cava’s third feature as director, and his first for Paramount. WOMANHANDLED is a romantic comedy from 1925 that pokes good-natured fun at the myth of the west, in much the same way as Doug Fairbanks did in WILD AND WOOLLY (reviewed here). The film is incomplete, but Treasures gathers enough scenes to form a reasonably coherent narrative.
In both films, a western community transforms itself into a fantasy vision of the past to fool a romantic visitor: in this case, it’s heroine Esther Ralston who has the hots for cowboys, and her beau, Richard Dix who sets out to live up to her fantasy.
The whole film’s very pretty, with some flat-on establishing shots that are actually breathtaking in their graphic simplicity. It’s not especially hilarious: as other commenters have noted, neither of the stars is a particularly gifted comedian. Ralston is simply decorous, whereas Dix does try to get into the spirit of things, hamming it up a little at times. He’s a very sweet hero, though, smiling earnestly at Ralston even as her horrendous little cousin (and ancestor of the pint-sized monsters who would plague W.C. Fields, sometimes in La Cava films) sets about his achilles tendon with a tomahawk. You can’t associate him easily with the captain of THE GHOST SHIP, coldly threatening to shoot the hero “in the abdomen.”
Funniest moments are those that puncture the air of charming whimsy with some bracing nastiness, as above. When Dix orders some horses, the nags that turn up are virtual walking skeletons. Casually, without even seeming to think, Dix hangs his straw boater from the protruding pelvis of one shriveled mare.
Worse (and better) yet, Dix induces the “colored help” to don redface and impersonate Indians.
When Ralston naively asks what tribe this family is from, Dix improvises —
The friend I tried this line on went into a sort of strange loop of conflicted response — “That’s funny — but terrible — but funny — but terrible…” Join him in his world of pained amusement! As IMDb reviewer and legend F. Gwynplaine MacIntryre puts it, “At this point “Womanhandled” enters the delirious realm of double-decker racial stereotypes.”
This disc comes with copious notes and commentary tracks — apparently, 1925 was the Year of the Western, with a third of all American movies going west. Esther Ralston’s career, it’s noted, is hard to assess since so many of her films are lost, including THE AMERICAN VENUS, whose trailer features in an earlier Treasures, and Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH. I know her mainly from a late-life interview in the documentary THE SILENT FEMINISTS: AMERICA’S FIRST WOMEN DIRECTORS, where she’s asked about Dorothy Arzner and goes into a protracted, unstoppable and very funny rant about how Arzner kept trying to get her to do sexy scenes until she complained to the studio boss. I get the impression this wasn’t the kind of insight the earnest documentarists behind the camera were after, but they cheefrully included it anyway, for which we can be grateful.